What can sustainability transition scholars learn from international political economy research?

In this blogpost written last month Dr Florian Kern opens up a conversation on the potential of scholarship on International Political Economy to enrich the study of sustainability transitions.

Word cloud, political, global, economyToday is the last day of the 5th international conference on Sustainability Transitions which is held in Utrecht, the Netherlands. During one of the last panel sessions of the conference I will present a new paper which reviews the existing literature on the politics of sustainability transitions and then argues that there is much to learn from the scholarship on international political economy (IPE). I suggest that it is important for transition scholars to explore connections with related areas of scholarship to avoid becoming too ‘insular’ and because such connections will foster new ideas, research questions and conceptual developments.

The starting point of the paper is that political aspects were under-conceptualised and under-researched in the early transitions literature. In these early days for example scholars focused on specific policies and their impact on technology development without discussing the politics surrounding policy choice, design and implementation. Transition processes towards sustainability were portrayed as relatively consensual and therefore unproblematic processes. However, over the last ten years a significant literature on the politics of sustainability transitions has emerged. Scholars have increasingly paid attention to the creation and contestation of various transition pathways, who decides which path(s) to follow, and have looked at the (domestic) politics of policy making in the context of transitions such as the politics of creating protective spaces for alternatives or the destabilisation of incumbent regimes. Such analyses have drawn on a variety of fields including institutional theory, policy studies and governance. Most empirical analysis are based on single national case studies.

I suggest that while the more recent literature has tried to engage with the political challenges of sustainability transitions, it has done so in a relatively ad hoc way and so far without taking much notice of contributions from the international political economy literature. I argue that insights from this literature can potentially contribute to a better understanding and conceptualisation of the politics of transitions towards more sustainable socio-technical systems.

International political economy is a wide field with many different schools within it. Generally, scholars differ in how they define their field of study but a common theme is that IPE “is about the mutually endogenous and every-changing nexus of interactions between economics and politics beyond the confines of a single state” (Cohen 2014: 138). Arguably the dominant school of thought within IPE is the American school. Cohen describes the American school as having a state-centric ontology: national governments are the core actors. This does not mean that other types of actors are completely ignored (such as individuals, enterprises, multilateral organisations or transnational communities) but they are mainly of interest insofar they influence or constrain government policy. Especially the realist and liberal approaches within the American school are mainly focussed on the nation state as the unit of analysis and how the international system impacts on national interests. Few transition studies look at the interaction between states and the global world system (and how the interactions/negotiations between states produce outcomes) which is an important omission. For scholars from the American school formal theory is important and research is often designed for hypothesis-testing using quantitative methodologies focussing on rigor and replicability of the results following the natural sciences model (Cohen 2014). These themes might also be explored more in a transition studies context.

Cohen describes the British IPE school as much more interdisciplinary and normative than the dominant American orthodoxy. He sees the British school as ‘more interpretive in tone and more institutional and historical in nature’ (Cohen 2014: 51) which seems to be a better fit with the majority of the transitions scholarship. The British school has been very much shaped by the work of Susan Strange and Robert Cox (Cohen 2014). Strange wanted IPE to be an open and inclusive multi-disciplinary field. Another hallmark of her vision of IPE was an intensive engagement with social issues in terms of distributional concerns and she advocated focussing much more on civil society actors rather than states. The work of Cox centres around the notion of ‘world order’ to be studied by interpretative historical analysis. For him the purpose of IPE is “to understand the structures that underlie the world” (Cohen 2014: 56). When Cohen describes Cox’ research agenda in these terms (“how systems came into being in the past, what changes are presently occurring within them, and how those changes might be shaped in the future”) (Cohen 2014: 57), this could be a verbatim statement of a transitions researcher. Also Cox rejected the exclusive focus on states which I think is instructive for transition researchers: instead state-society complex should be at the heart of the analysis as outcomes of transition processes really depend on the social forces shaping them rather than just the actions of states.

I conclude by suggesting a number of initial questions and themes for research on the international political economy of sustainability transitions. Inspired by the ‘American school’ of IPE,

  1. How do transition processes in different countries interact and how (much) are they shaped by the global governance system (incl. the global financial system; energy resource competition)?
  2. Who are important actors in shaping global transitions dynamics? (e.g. role of multi-national corporations, international organisations and transnational actor networks)
  3. What role can more quantitative analysis and hypothesis-testing research play in analysing sustainability transitions?

Inspired by the British school of IPE,

  1. What do we know about the distributional impacts of transitions within and across societies? ‘winner and losers’; how can these issues be managed?
  2. How are transitions influenced by and are influencing the international division of labour, trade relationships and global value chains?
  3. What role do civil society and social forces play in transition processes? Here research could build on Cox’ state-society complex.

The paper is really not intended as a final product but merely as a starting point for a conversation about the potential for IPE thinking to enrich the sustainability transitions literature. International issues are clearly at the heart of transition processes and there is much room to translate the questions and themes above into fascinating research designs beyond single national case studies.


Cohen, B. J. (2014). Advanced Introduction to International Political Economy. Cheltenham and Northampton, Edward Elgar.

This post was originally posted on the Science Policy Research Unit website on 29 August 2014

Twitter hash tag: #IST2014

Image Source: http://www.isanet.org/ISA/Sections/IPE

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